Of Wildfires, Mudslides and Good Government

By Sesa Das for ISKCON News on 19 Aug 2010

To date 2010 has been quite an ecological test for political leadership around the world. The Gulf Oil spill disaster, which had mild repercussions in British and American relations, has been swiftly followed by massive wildfires in Russia and devastating mudslides in China. While governmental response to these emergencies gets mixed grades, the political realities of crisis management have become yet another factor for politicians to balance.

“Crisis management has become a defining feature of contemporary governance. In times of crisis, communities and members of organizations expect their public leaders to minimize the impact of the crisis at hand, while critics and bureaucratic competitors try to seize the moment to blame incumbent rulers and their policies. In this extreme environment, policy makers must somehow establish a sense of normality, and foster collective learning from the crisis experience.”

Crisis management gurus have identified five essential steps in the relatively new field of crisis management: forecasting, assessing, planning, preventing, responding, and adapting.

The Russian government’s handling of the wildfires which have been raging since mid-July gets them low grades. The Washington Post (Lilia Shevtsova and David J. Kramer, Sunday, August 15, 2010) estimates that nearly 100 deaths, thousands of homes and other property losses totaling over $15 billion are directly attributed to the wildfires:

The fires started a month ago, but Russia’s leaders were slow to grasp the gravity of the situation and slower to respond. As his country burned, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on vacation in the resort town of Sochi — and then, inexplicably, headed off to the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia to mark the two-year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war.

Despite the dire situation in the capital, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov departed for his own holiday, in the Alps, returning only grudgingly. The state forestry agency’s Moscow director was fired for refusing to cut short his own vacation, while Medvedev, in a striking display of hypocrisy, threatened to dismiss other forestry officials who remained on leave.

The poor response to the fires will further widen the chasm separating the nation’s authorities from society.

The Chinese government’s handling of the mudslides get them better grades. On August 9, 2010, one day after the devastating mudslide which to date has claimed 1,248 lives with 496 still missing, Xinhua.com reported:

The Chinese government Monday continued to dispatch relief materials and rescue teams to Zhouqu County, in northwest China’s Gansu Province, where hundreds of people were buried in mudslides early Sunday.

The Ministry of Commerce announced that it has launched an emergency response mechanism under which it has ordered supplies of relief materials to the county, including 16,700 tents, 110,000 blankets, 222,000 cotton coats, 333,000 electric torches and four million candles.

About 45,000 people have been evacuated, and at least 307 homes were destroyed, according to local authorities.

The Ministry also ordered 435,000 boxes of mineral water, 10 tonnes of ham sausages, 295,000 boxes of instant noodles and other food supplies from its emergency stock and suppliers, which are en route to Zhouqu County.

The Ministry of Railways said it has organized special trains for rescue and relief transportation. The first train reached Zhouqu with 500 packs of sleeping bags as of 11:08 p.m. Sunday.

China’s State Forestry Administration said it had allocated one million yuan (about 147,500 U.S.dollars) of disaster-relief fund to the disaster-hit region. Local forestry authorities in Gansu Province have also sent a team of 700 forestry police to help mudslide victims.

While the timely and generous humanitarian aid provided by the Chinese government in response to the mudslides is certainly good when compared to the bureaucratic selfishness displayed by the Russian government in their response to the wildfires, but is simply responding good enough? Can or should governments be accountable to proactively combat the occurrence of natural disasters? The Vedic model of government provides some answers to these questions.

Srimad Bhagavatam gives the following description of the harmony with nature that is possible when government is held to a more full measure of its responsibility. “O Maharaja Pariksit, …during the reign of Lord Ramacandra the forests, the rivers, the hills and mountains, the states, the seven islands and the seven seas were all favorable in supplying the necessities of life for all living beings…. all bodily and mental suffering, disease, old-age, bereavement, lamentation, distress, fear and fatigue were completely absent. There was even no death for those who did not want it.” — Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.10.52

Such harmony with nature is the result of careful leadership training which cultivates the personal character necessary for constructive ways of thinking and decision-making. Vedic guru Srila Prabhupada explains:

“Raja-dharma [duties of saintly leaders] is a great science, unlike modern diplomacy for political supremacy. The kings were trained systematically to become munificent and not merely be tax collectors. They were trained to perform different sacrifices only for the prosperity of the subjects. To lead the prajas [citizens] to the attainment of salvation was a great duty of the king. The father, the spiritual master and the king are not to become irresponsible in the matter of leading their subjects to the path of ultimate liberation from birth, death, diseases and old age… Actually the qualified brahmanas are meant to give direction to the kings for proper administration in terms of the scriptures like the Manu-saàhitä and Dharma-çästras of Paräçara.” Purport, Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.9.27

“Because the King was pious and obedient to the Lord and sages, because he was no one’s enemy and because he was a recognized agent of the Lord and therefore protected by Him, all the citizens under the King’s protection were, so to speak, directly protected by the Lord and His authorized agents. Unless one is pious and recognized by the Lord, he cannot make others happy who are under his care. There is full cooperation between man and God and man and nature, and this conscious cooperation between man and God and man and nature, as exemplified by King Yudhiñöhira, can bring about happiness, peace and prosperity in the world. The attitude of exploiting one another, the custom of the day, will only bring misery.” Purport, Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.10.6

Don’t be too quick to dismiss this as mere religious sentiment. There is a striking similarity between the prescriptions of the Vedic gurus and today’s crisis management gurus. The key proactive features or crisis management are identifying potential situations, planning for such eventualities, and taking the step necessary to prevent crisis. Vedic gurus focus the same principles by shaping the character of a leader. Leaders are trained to understand the changing nature of this material world, to practice the sense control which is necessary to respond to danger with both speed and good judgment, and to act with appropriate responsibility for those in one’s care.

How would such a Vedic trained government have made a different in the Russian Wildfire crisis or the Chinese mudslide crisis? The Washington Post report provides some insight, “Prime Minister Vladimir Putin bears direct responsibility for the dysfunctional system that set the stage for disaster: Legislation that came into effect in 2007, when he was president, turned forest management over to poorly equipped local authorities and to companies that manufacture paper and related products. Oligarchs close to the Kremlin allegedly lobbied for the law, which decimated the forest ranger corps and left Russia ill-prepared for today’s calamity.” Putin’s error in judgment, which was influenced by a tendency toward political cronyism, is apparently as an important factor in this natural disaster as nature itself. Vedic government was trained to be wary of such personal motivation and its devastating consequences.

There is similar tale to tell about the Chinese Mudslides. The Christian Science Monitor reported on August 12, 2010, “Monster monsoon rains may have loosened the mud and rock that buried and killed more than 1,000 people in the northwestern Chinese Province of Gansu over the weekend, but the mudslide in Zhouqu was more than a natural disaster. Official records show that government-run lumber companies cut 313,000 acres of forest from the slopes of Zhouqu county between 1952 and 1990, denuding the geologically vulnerable mountainsides and subjecting them to soil erosion. Thirteen years ago two Chinese scientists published a paper warning that following “the destruction of the eco-system” in the district, “a rainstorm will carry debris down the gully, destroying farmland, houses, roads, bridges, water facilities, and power systems and causing death and injury.”

Unfortunately, bad government often neglects good advice. In this case greed and exploitation appear to have come back to haunt the Chinese government. In contrast, Vedic governors were trained hear from well-wishing authorities, and not to be driven by generation of revenues at the risk of danger to the citizens. Sense control taught the Vedic leader to appropriately use natural resources, and to put the needs of the citizens before their own.

In the Vedic model, good government is never solely at the mercy of either natural or man-made crisis. Recognizing that we live in a less than perfect world, good government takes a proactive role in planning the protection of its citizens. Good government proposes with knowledge that God disposes.

Posted in Editorials.